Monday, June 14, 2010

Hurricanes: The Big Fear

The people of Grand Isle are resilient. Every year they spend the winter and spring rebuilding, prepping for the summer, and prepping for the upcoming hurricane season. There is a species of algae that lives on the Pacific coast of the United States. These sea palms, Postelsia palmaeformis, attach to rocks way out at the edge of the intertidal zone. They get thrashed by the waves and storms that rips everything else off of the rocks, but they bend and snap back up after the waves pass. They do this because they can take advantage of the resources available to any species that can occupy these fringe habitats.

What we learn at Williams-Mystic is that there are threads that bind our coasts together, and so I can say that these people of Grand Isle weather the storms out here at the very edge of the Louisiana coast and snap back. Chris told us in March that the reason he stays year after year, storm after storm, is because this place is paradise. Being here in the summer I can see how true that is. In the midst of all this chaos there are times when all I can think is that this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
The sun and sea breeze hits me as I rumble down LA 1 with the windows down and Ginger's country mix playing. At first I felt guilty for enjoying moments like this, but I realize that I can't help it. This place is paradise and is important to understand that because it is a reminder of why it is so vital that we save it. The people live here and withstand the storms because they can jump on their fishing boats docked in their back yards and go out and feed their families. They can drive their golf carts along the side of the road to go visit with their extended family and friends(this is an incredibly tight community), and they can scoot over to the beach to enjoy the sun and the beautiful Gulf waters. It is hot and hazy today, with enough breeze to bring relief from the intense heat of the last couple of days. A perfect day in a perfect place. Grand Isle is irreplaceable.
What we have learned from the people we have talked with and the conversations we have overheard is that the locals are doing their best to deal with the clean up efforts and the damage done to their businesses. What they can't imagine is what will happen if there is a big storm. Rarely do I hear them say "when" there is a big storm, because the inevitability of that event is too much to comprehend. Unfortunately this is supposed to be a big year for hurricanes. According to NOAA, there are predicted to be:
  • 14 to 23 Named Storms (top winds of 39 mph or higher), including:
  • 8 to 14 Hurricanes (top winds of 74 mph or higher), of which:
  • 3 to 7 could be Major Hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of at least 111 mph)
Everyone here knows what that means: if(WHEN) there is a storm this island will get covered with toxic oil. The lessons of Katrina are known: when the levees around New Orleans burst an oil tank owned by the Murphy Oil Company was damaged, spilling a million gallons of oil into the Chalmette neighborhood. Many residents never came back to their damaged homes and of those that did, many got sick.

I spoke with one woman here that said that if there is a storm coming through she will not leave the island, not matter how big it is. Her fear, and the fears of everyone here, is that if they leave the island will be condemned and they will never be able to return.
This graveyard is set up in the front yard of a home here on the island. We are not just talking about the lifestyle of the 2,000 residents of Grand Isle, but also the things that 400,000 people enjoy when they come to visit every year.
Compared to the devastation that will occur when a storm coats the island in oil, Katrina was a walk in the park. You can see it in people's eyes: they know if this happens they cannot recover. You cannot decontaminate an entire island.

I have tried my best to keep it together. I have been doing this by staying angry. I am angry at the negligence I have seen, the sloppiness I have seen in the clean up efforts, the shady business that is clearly going down, and the misinformation that is being spread. You should be angry to! Do not believe anything you are being told unless what you are being told is pissing you off. But when people here talk about the hurricane season there is nothing but sadness and loss in their eyes. I hear it again and again: a hurricane will be the end. And that makes me cry.


  1. thanks for sharing what's really going on...JPJ and I are thinking of you in Mystic...hugs

  2. The picture you give us of the situation and people makes me think they will not desert the island in the next hurricane- they will go down with it.

  3. You're putting a face and a soul to the facts and figures we hear day to day. That changes people, and people change things.

  4. The Precautionary Principal

    When an activity raises threats of harm
    to human health or the environment
    precautionary measures should be taken
    even if some cause & effect relationships
    are not fully established scientifically.

  5. Thank you for showing us what is really going on. It is disgraceful how this whole clean-up is being handled.

  6. This is a side we would never see or feel from the news- thanks for letting us know in more depth what challenges this community is facing. It is so hard to believe how this effects so many different aspects of their daily life- the cross pictures took me back with its message.

    Please let them know, even though we are here in RI, we will help in any way possible. Keep up the good work!

  7. Rachel and Ginger, thank you for being our eyes and ears on Grand Isle. Thanks too to Katy Robinson Hall, Jim Carlton, and other Williams/Mystic Maritime Studies family members who are helping us move beyond just concern to create tangible results on a community to community basis. Our friends on the Gulf Coast are in need. Spread the word about this blog and

  8. Thank you so much for this, Rachel and Ginger. I just read every entry and am anxious for more.
    I wonder if there are other writers like you publishing their behind the scenes views? This is heartbreaking and amazing. Thank you.